Monday, November 23, 2009

hermeneutics, viro-logic

"There is no practice except by and in ideology" -- Louis Althusser ("I&ISA," 244)
"It is not only possible but time to change the stories and the world they imagine" --Priscilla Wald (270)
Wald's Contagious masterfully weaves together the historical development and past instances of the "outbreak narrative," almost a genre in itself with stock characters, a well-defined story arc, and potentially dangerous effects. Wald's mode of narrative analysis precedes almost epidemiologically, locating SARS narratives as only the latest outbreak of the outbreak narrative, which has mutated from Oedipus through Typhoid Mary, Body Snatchers and Patient Zero. Yet it seems that Wald is fascinated by the virologists method, their viro-logic: "the identification of a virus generated a viral narrative" (216); narratives "inflect--and yes, infect--every aspect of . . . scientific and epidemiological processes" (262). Wald posits narrative as itself infectious, begging the question of method: that is, of hermeneutics as virology.
If, as Althusser claims, there is no practice outside ideology, is there any reason that Wald should not mobilize the power of the virus-narrative to her own ends, mobilizing a sort of critical retrovirus that insinuates itself into the narratives of epidemiology and virology, of novels, newspapers and films, in order to expose the consequences of their myth-making? Can (or must) a critique of outbreak narratives partake of those narratives' resources?
Perhaps there is no practice outside ideology, but it does seem that there are plenty of critical resources available outside discourses of infection and contagion that would be more useful in describing the mechanisms that distribute cultural narratives. Wald asks us to take her sources--scientific journals, magazines, novels, newspapers, popular films--as examples of outbreak narratives; the profusion of examples, like the profusion of a virus, attests to the narrative's endurance. Wald then couples these dispersed examples with historical effects: public health regulations that target impoverished immigrant communities; the militarization of immunological language (and vice-versa); bypassing a "critique of social and economic conditions that affect drug use as well as healthcare" (248). There seems to be a viro-logic governing the relationships between the narrative's causes (narrative as effect) and the narrative's effects (narrative as cause); narrative takes on a kind of recursivity, simultaneously drawing upon and reinforcing social stigmatization & specific models of virology. Narratives are infectious, like a virus, but they are also infected, like a host. 
So it is a question of vectors of infection; for Wald they seem to go from power to power, from mainstream journalism to government policy, from prestigious scientific research to hollywood cinema and back again. In a word, it appears to me that Wald makes a somewhat unquestioned notion of cultural dominance perform a lot of conceptual work, and in so doing reproduces the very exclusions she decries. We need to look at how U.S. policies thirdworldify the 'primitive' farms of Guangzhou, Wald says; but her analysis instead veers off into the New York Times, Scientific American and I Am Legend. Even William Burroughs' virus trilogy is mobilized to show the prevalence of "viral culture." These sources function as a kind of "Patient Zero" for Wald--perhaps they are not the undisputed origin of a certain narrative, but she assumes that they play a major role in spreading it throughout the population. 
Even if analyses of such a dominant culture hold fast for different moments in history dominated by large-circulation newspapers, magazines, and televisions, how do new media (youtube, blogs, RSS feeds, online confessions, twitter, etc.) "inf(l)ect" the outbreak narrative?Networked media are often described as viral (e.g., viral videos), spreading information through a promiscuous milieu composed of fleeting contacts, promiscuous packet switching, and hubs of distribution (superspreaders?). Terranova's analysis of media ecologies can help us here. Although Terranova allows for mass forms, nationalist / scientifically rationalist narratives that Wald highlights do not take hold in the mass as such. Althusser is again relevant: "there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects" (244). The mass is preindividual and collective; subjects, the correlates of ideologies, are the products of functions of subjectification, such as the "selfish gene", which recast genes (which, like viruses, merely replicate or don't) as egotistical actors. 
 Hermeneutics, deciphering the deep meanings of texts, must draw upon a kind of source that grounds the text's meaning; Wald's virological hermeneutics are grounded in the imagining subject who is called upon (interpellated) to maintain the integrity of the nation. Yet what if the notion of subjectivity that lends Wald's method its power is also a stumbling block to "chang[ing] the stories and the world they imagine" (Wald 270)? 
The contradiction I'm attempting to present can be stated more simply: Wald insists that viruses, contrary to their depiction in many outbreak narratives, are not evil or intentionally malicious entities; furthermore, to personify a virus as malicious is to elide from the social factors that enable or exacerbate its effects; yet Wald, claiming that the outbreak narrative itself is infectious, elides some of the social factors that enable, exacerbate or trouble its effects--namely, by taking products of mainstream media as indices of cultural attitudes that she then decries, often at the expense of developing an alternative narrative. I argue that she does this because creating an alternative narrative of epidemics may force her to go beyond a hermeneutic method grounded in the subject of an ostensibly dominant ideology. 
In a word: Wald claims a need for that which she does not deliver--a new narrative that is engaged with the specificity of the contemporary situation, a specificity that is likely more fine-grained than a study of dominant U.S., Western, or scientific ideology. Perhaps if Wald more clearly located the mechanisms of power in her analysis (instead of spending so much time on narratives that she presumes reflect/affect Americans, Westerners, or scientists based on their publication in mainstream press) resistances would emerge more clearly, beyond the confines of the subject-supposed-to-know-the-dominant-narrative. 

(Fair warning: I have not yet read Chapter 3--perhaps it will challenge my analysis; but for a large portion of the book at least, I hope my criticisms hold water. Also: HIV as metaphor (dissimulating/insinuating the improper within the proper), virus as inherently opposed to logic/reason, and language as virus รก la Burroughs have made appearances in several earlier drafts of this post--would love to hear if anyone has something worked out more concretely!)

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